“Mountains are earth’s undecaying monuments.” Nathaniel Hawthorne
The frost crunched under my boots as I made my way up the grassy slope to the old apple orchard on the top of the hill. Dawn had broken cold and clear in eastern Massachusetts, and as I took a few deep breaths on the hilltop, I felt the pleasant sting of the frigid Berkshire air. Twenty degrees is cold here for mid October, but I relished the anomalous weather almost as much as the brilliant foliage blazing under the cold morning sun.
I had topped this hill for two additional reasons this morning: mega fauna and fish. Black bear activity had been reported in the immediate area, and I suspected that the Mama bear and her two cubs might make a visit to feast on the apples. The ground was littered beneath the old trees with apples that dropped down at a rate that would have pleased Newton. By circling the orchard along the old pond trail, I attained higher and safer ground to observe the buffet below me and waited, seated on an old red oak stump. The bears did not show this morning, but two whitetail deer materialized from the forest, and began munching the cider apples in the northwest corner of the orchard. Shortly a hound’s baying in the distance echoed down the valley, and the deer slipped back silently into the trees.
The fish part? Well, from my vantage point I had a magnificent view of Stockbridge Bowl, a 372 acre great pond, shrouded in a swirling surface mist below me. I surveyed the heavily wooded shoreline and selected where I would fish. My decision was based in equal parts on accessibility, aesthetics and angling. I started back down the hill to pick up my fishing gear from the trunk of my car, contemplating the unique designation of Stockbridge Bowl as a “great pond.”
The term is actually a legal one, dating back to colonial times. In the states of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine, it refers to a natural lake or pond of ten acres or more, which identified as such, is legislated to have public access. Laws on streams, rivers and reservoirs are more complicated, but great ponds are pretty straight forward. So Stockbridge Bowl had a few access areas where the public, in this case me, could launch a boat, canoe or kayak, fish from shore, or wade. I chose the latter. After all, by the time I reached the causeway at the marshy lake inlet, the temperature had soared to twenty-five, and I had along my slit finger gloves and hand warmers.
I swapped my hiking boots for hip waders, and found the sand/gravel bottom offered safe and easy footing, especially in the very clear waters of the lake. A rather wide shallow shelf allowed easy access to the deeper waters where the fish were more likely to be, under these cold front conditions. A few mallards, a dozen or so Canadian geese and a couple of cormorants were my only company, which pleased but did not surprise me. What was unexpected was the extensive aquatic weed growth, somewhat vexing to my lure presentations. But after going through a few sizes, shapes and colors of jigs, I found the yellow perch I sought responded nicely to a small spinner worked steadily just under the surface and just above the top of the weeds.
The perch weren’t overly large, but perfectly hued, and even complemented the beautiful shoreline vegetation, as I framed the fish against the backdrop of the far shore before returning them to the depths again. After a time, the beautiful morning took an unexpected turn, and a snow squall, the first of many this day, swept down the lake with quarter size flakes swirling everywhere. A slice of nature that needed no enhancement, became Impossibly, even more beautiful. And colder, as the winds picked up, probably dropping the wind chill into the teens. I swapped footgear again, broke down my rod and loaded it and my tackle vest into my backpack, and hiked back to my lodgings for some oatmeal before the afternoon’s adventures.
The Berkshires are not a mountain range in the traditional sense, and in western Massachusetts they are as much a cultural region as a geographic one. Geologically they are considered a Highland region, but in local usage the Berkshiires are a mountain range too. The Berkshires understood as such, include portions of the Taconic Range, including Mount Greylock, the highest peak in Massachusetts at just under 3,500 feet elevation. And a view of Mount Greylock was one of the reasons I was on this trip to the Berkshires, and the view I sought was a singular one indeed. It was the view that Herman Melville had from his Arrowhead Farm in Pittsfield, the view of the hump backed profile of Mount Greylock that suggested a great whale to the author. And looking out of his study in the farmhouse, Melville drew upon his time at sea on a whaler, the stories the old sailors had told him along the Hudson River as a boy, and that mass of metamorphic rock looming across his fields, to pen Moby Dick.
As I drove the country roads from Stockbridge thru Lenox and on to Pittsfield, the intermittent snow squalls became even more intense, and in the changing light as the day wore on, the fall colors became even prettier. Everyone is familiar with the term “peak time for foliage”, and timing that out is a science of imperfection and an art of probability, to paraphrase William Osler’s words to describe the medical profession. When you factor in the snow, swirling and spiraling in the midst of the incredible fall colors, it was a once in a lifetime experience, impossible to predict, and almost impossible to fully grasp. To say it was akin to being in a living snow globe comes close, but I never saw a snow globe that was pierced by electric shafts of illumination changing your view of the world almost rhythmically in reflected and refracted light.
Passing through Lenox, I recalled that Nathaniel Hawthorne had lived there as a contemporary of Melville’s in the mid nineteenth century, writing the House of Seven Gables at the same time Moby Dick was being written a couple of miles up the road. Hawthorne and Melville were friends in fact, and in the original edition, Melville dedicated Moby Dick to Hawthorne. These guys didn’t just sit around with their faces in notebooks and journals however, and both of them were frequent hikers in the nearby mountains, along with their mutual friend Oliver Wendell Holmes. I find it extremely enjoyable to seek out portions of the classics that contain segments of what can only be described as nature writing, and I think that many of the nineteenth century authors such as these three were nature writers at their core, borne from the time they spent in the outdoors.
Pulling into Arrowhead Farm, I parked behind the large red barn and surveyed the area in a pause between the squalls. The land is still farmed, but really more of a large garden, the barn and farmhouse now headquarters of the Berkshire Historical Society, closed for the season as it were. But the grounds and trails were open and I hiked about looking in three directions at fields bordering nearby woodlands, as idyllic a setting as could be imagined. A few crows cawed at me, probably wondering if I was one of the particularly lifelike scarecrows come to life.
Eventually I found myself on the east side of Arrowhead, gazing across the lower acres of the farm into a cloud covered horizon, as yet another intense squall begin to shake the snow globe again. I sat on the side porch on a long wooden bench, outside the window that Melville would have gazed through, across these same corn and pumpkin fields, to behold Mount Greylock. I sat there for a long time watching the crows pick through the stubble, thinking how far from the sea this place felt. I raised my eyes to a noisy flight of geese passing in front of me, headed to nearby Pontoosuc Lake, one of Melville’s favorites. As I did, I noticed the ceiling had lifted again and the late afternoon sun had begun to break through in the valley, revealing as it did, what lay beyond. The twin humps of Mount Greylock were now visible through the mist, and it was as if a great sperm whale, white or at least mocha colored, was porpoising before me on the surface of some shifting sea. What had seemed so landlocked moments before, now took on a nautical aspect. I took a deep breath, half expecting to smell and taste salt in the mist, and I am not sure I didn’t, it was that kind of experience. I shook my head and lurched to my feet as I rose from the bench, feeling almost as though a deck had heaved beneath me before I had gained my sea legs.
The drive back to Stockbridge was slow, as the strongest squalls of the day manifested themselves along the way. The temperature had still not risen above freezing, although the next day would see a return to seasonable weather. Still great foliage, but not the same, perhaps not ever again. I had begun the day in search of perch, and had ended it finding a whale. A pretty good fall day in the Berkshires by any reckoning.